It’s official: Taiwan’s ruling party, the KMT or Nationalist Party, has changed its presidential candidate — just three months before the election. Now Eric Chu, the party chairman as well as mayor of New Taipei City, will run instead of Hung Hsiu-chu.
Hung has been faring badly in election polls, which consistently show her trailing opposition Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen by double-digits – over 30 percentage points, according to the latest poll from Taiwan Indicators Survey Research. That led to increasing speculation that the KMT – worried not only about losing the presidency, but about Hung’s lagging numbers torpedoing the chances of its legislative candidates – would pull Hung in favor of Chu, who is believed to be a more competitive candidate.
After weeks of rumors, the KMT took its first formal step toward replacing Hung on October 7, with the party’s Central Standing Committee unanimously deciding to hold a special party congress to discuss the matter. That congress took place on Saturday. According to China Post, 812 out of 891 delegates approved the decision to replace Hung with Chu. The proposal to name Chu the KMT candidate was met with a standing ovation, Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) reported.
Chu apologized to Hung, but said the change was necessary. He added that he hopes Hung and her supporters will back the KMT in the upcoming elections. Hung, however, has remained defiant throughout the process. Before the decision was final, she promised to fight it till the end. Her supporters also made their feelings known by demonstrating in front of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall during the party congress.
Hung criticized the move to replace her, although she acknowledged that she would be forced to accept it. She pointed out that she was the first KMT presidential candidate to be selected through a democratic primary, and questioned what the unprecedented decision to oust her would mean for the party. “The decision reached at today’s congress will not only be closely watched by KMT members, but also by Taiwanese and every ethnic Chinese who cares about democracy,” Hung said. “Should we… sacrifice the KMT’s democratic systems and put the party’s integrity, principles, and spirits in jeopardy for the mere sake of election results?”
Though Hung has a core of supporters, her positions (particularly on cross-strait relations, where she was viewed as pro-unification) are out of step with mainstream Taiwanese society. Chu is already framing himself as a centrist who will be responsible on cross-strait relations. He is also planning a trip to the United States, his campaign team told CNA, a move that will help demonstrate his foreign policy chops. It’s a telling move, as Hung had refused to make such a trip. Tsai, meanwhile, made her U.S. visit back in July (and also visited Japan this month).
Though it’s expected that Chu will have a better chance in the elections that Hung, he still faces an uphill battle against Tsai and the DPP. Not only does Tsai still have a solid lead in the polls, Chu will have only three short months to campaign before the January 16 elections. Chu noted that it’s widely believed a DPP victory is in the cards, but urged the KMT to keep up its efforts. “The Mission Impossible movies remind us that we can be victorious in even the gravest situations,” Chu said.
He framed his decision to enter the presidential race as a bid to save Taiwan’s democracy, arguing that a KMT collapse would mean one-party rule in Taiwan. The 2016 elections will decide the fate of the nation, Chu said in a speech at the congress. The KMT echoed Chu’s sentiments in a statement, saying that “this is [the] KMT’s moment of survival.”
“We cannot witness our party walking into the history and all of our comrades losing elections without making an effort to fight back,” the statement said, explaining why it removed Hung as its candidate.
Tsai, meanwhile, argued that it makes little difference who runs for the KMT. She said voters have already decided they are ready for a change in government after eight years of KMT control under President Ma Ying-jeou. “[A] majority of Taiwanese people have already made up their minds, and no matter who replaces whom in the KMT, the people have decided to vote another party into power,” Tsai said on Saturday.